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'Princess and the Frog' and 'Invictus' start relatively soft at box office

COMPANY TOWN

But good audience reactions mean buzz should be strong for both movies, which were released in early December in hopes of gaining momentum as the holiday season continues.

December 14, 2009|By Ben Fritz
  • "The Princess and the Frog" drew so-so audiences, but only one other family film will open soon.
"The Princess and the Frog" drew so-so audiences, but only one… (Disney )

Two new movies got off to so-so starts this weekend, but the studios behind them hope they're both set up to prosper over the holidays.

"The Princess and the Frog," Walt Disney Studios' first hand-drawn animated film in six years, debuted to a studio-estimated $25 million in nationwide release. Warner Bros.' apartheid drama "Invictus," directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, opened to $9.1 million. Both were on the low end of expectations and considered relatively soft starts given their budgets.

The first half of December is traditionally slow at the box office. The studios behind the two new nationwide pictures started them now in hopes of generating momentum and positive word of mouth going into a holiday season packed with such highly anticipated new releases as "Avatar," "Sherlock Holmes" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel."

In that sense, the weekend was something of a success. "Princess and the Frog" got an average audience grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore, and "Invictus" got an A-minus, meaning buzz should be strong for both.

"It's a tough time opening right before Christmas," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. "If you get the word of mouth, you can be well positioned."

The opening gross for "Princess and the Frog" was very close to those of the last two non-Pixar Disney animated features, "Bolt" and "Meet the Robinsons," both of which were financial disappointments. However, the weeks around Christmas, when children are out of school, are second only to summer as the most lucrative time of year for family movies. The only other family film opening in the next few weeks is "Alvin."

"When you get to Christmas you need more than one family movie to satiate the demand of the public," said Chuck Viane, Disney's president of domestic distribution. "This movie will have a real stickiness to it."

Though "Princess and the Frog" is unlikely to be as big a hit as any recent release from Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios, the company is hoping it will produce much-needed momentum for its 75-year-old Burbank-based Disney Animation Studios, which has suffered from a string of weak performers in the last several years.

Together with the $2.9 million that "Princess and the Frog" generated during its first two weeks playing at one theater each in Los Angeles and New York, the film has grossed $27.9 million domestically.

Internationally, it beat the opening of "Bolt" by 10% in the 10 territories where it opened, grossing $7 million from countries including Germany, Mexico and Venezuela.

Warner Bros. is hoping that a combination of strong word of mouth and expected awards recognition, including from the Golden Globe nominations Tuesday, will keep "Invictus" running for a long time.

$9.1 million is a soft opening for a movie that cost Warner and its financing partner Spyglass Entertainment about $60 million to produce, meaning that a slow burn at the box office is crucial. Some films directed by Eastwood, such as "Gran Torino" and "Million Dollar Baby," have done just that. Others, such as "Changeling," have faded faster.

The box office continued its record-setting run, as total industry revenue beat the same weekend last year by 9%, according to Hollywood.com Box Office. One of the key drivers was "The Blind Side," which declined only 23% on its fourth weekend, coming in at No. 2 with $15.5 million. Disney's "A Christmas Carol" is also showing extraordinary staying power, dropping just 12% on its sixth weekend.

In limited release, Paramount opened "The Lovely Bones," directed by Peter Jackson and based on the bestselling book, to $116,000 at three theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Its per-theater average of less than $39,000 is a modest start for a movie hoping to generate strong buzz and awards recognition. The movie has received mostly negative reviews, which probably didn't help it attract audiences. Paramount spent $65 million to produce the film, which will be released nationwide in January.

Weinstein Co. didn't create big business in nine theaters for its new drama "A Single Man," despite healthy reviews. It grossed $216,000, an average of $24,000 per theater.

"Up in the Air," the layoff-themed drama starring George Clooney, continues to play very well. Paramount expanded it from 15 to 72 theaters and collected a solid $2.5 million. Its box-office total after two weekends is just over $4 million. The Paramount and Montecito Picture Co. film expands nationwide on Christmas.

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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